The Real Madrid defender talks about his Champions League dreams, facing Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, and the day he told Gerard Piqué they both needed to grow up
Picture the scene. A hush around the stadium as you walk, alone. Halfway line to penalty spot. It is the semi-final of the European Championship, the opportunity to achieve something no other team has achieved, but the country does not live in hope so much as expectation. It is level in the shootout, you are taking the fourth. Miss and you are practically out, a failure. You know that because you have been here before, two months ago almost to the day: a European semi-final, the fourth penalty, the long walk.
That time, you sent the ball flying over the bar and into a million jokes. Even the Bayern Munich goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, joined in. Your miss put Real Madrid out. The European Cup final, gone. It is a decade since they have been there, 10 years waiting for the 10th title, and you have barely stopped thinking about it. Now here you are again. From Madrid in April, Bayern versus Real, to Donetsk in June, Spain versus Portugal. The pressure is asphyxiating. You run up and …
Sergio Ramos's grin grows wider as each layer is peeled away, reaching that moment. And you go and dink it?! You do a Panenka. Ramos has a tattoo, in English and borrowed from Nelson Mandela, that declares him the owner of an "unconquerable soul, master of my own destiny". He says he also had a thorn there, removed when his penalty famously floated gently into the net; catharsis is not the half of it.
He is laughing now. "That moment marks you forever, after the Champions League experience and everything people said. In those moments when the pressure and responsibility is overwhelming, I've always stood up. When I planted my left foot, the ball lifted and my right foot went under the ball. It wasn't that I was nervous or bottled it and it hurt that people said that. When I got home that night, I said to my dad and brother Rene: the next penalty, Panenka. You'll see. They'll soon shut up."
Ramos did not know the opportunity would come so soon but he practiced at Spain's Euro 2012 HQ in Gniewino. "Not on the penalty spot because there were cameras around," he explains, "but the touch itself, the dink. I remember Vicente [del Bosque] saying: 'You won't dare'. I said: 'You'll see'. When I did it, everyone said: 'What bollocks!' or 'Are you mad?' But if you think coldly, it's logical. The goalkeeper doesn't expect it after what I'd been through. If you hit it hard, you can miss. If you dink it softly, it's harder to miss. The keeper could stand still and gracias, sure, but of 80,000 there, 79,999 thought I'd hit it hard.
"Only Jesús Navas and El Chori [Raúl Albiol] knew. When extra-time finished, he came over and I said: 'The moment's come."
The rest is history. Spain became the first country to win three successive major tournaments and Ramos, who wears the No15 shirt in memory of Antonio Puerta, who died aged 22 in 2007, has now won everything there is to win, except the European Cup. Yet there was something quieter, less explosive, about Euro 2012. A sense of relief.
"We celebrated the first Euro more intensely because it had been so long since Spain won something and the peak was the World Cup," Ramos says. "They were telling people not to come to Madrid because they couldn't fit anyone else in. We really did unite a country and with all their problems people needed that. That imposes responsibility on you – we're conscious of our social power, what we represent – but joy too.
"Our margin for error is getting smaller. People expect us to win now and if we don't …" Ramos continues, doing a chopping motion. "It felt different this time, more 'normal', but we shouldn't forget how hard it is to win something. They expect us to win, four, five, six years running but that's just not normal."
The journey had also been marked by tension between Madrid and Barcelona players, real fears that club conflict might destroy the national team. "The doubt was there," Ramos says. "There'd been a lot of rife-rafe. Vicente handled it well and we saw the need to resolve it. We had a meeting. Spain is pretty much six or seven from Barcelona and five or six from Madrid. That was too important for us to ruin.
"[Gerard] Piqué and me had differences but now the relationship is good. I'm not necessarily talking about friendship and nor is that vital. It's about professional commitment. I don't go for a beer with him when he's in Madrid or if I'm in Barcelona. At Madrid it's perhaps harder because you practically live together. There's daily contact, and there may be more clashes but closer relationships too. With Spain, it's three or four times a year, or a month together [at a tournament]. You can overcome issues.
"I grabbed Piqué and we spoke: 'Let's stop being little kids, let's stop being so unintelligent and unprofessional. Both of us. We're two great players but you're not going to have a good tournament without my help and I'm not going to have a good one without yours.'" Together, in the absence of Carles Puyol, they had an exceptional tournament. The odd couple, perhaps, but the perfect partnership.
For Ramos, the conversion has been long but it is complete. He lists Claudio Caniggia as his boyhood idol – "yeah, the Argentinian with the long hair," he says, laughing – and recalls Ted McMinn, Sevilla's Scottish winger. Ramos began as an attacker, has played as a central midfielder, and won the World Cup at right-back, afterwards admitting that the success lacked something – a goal of his. The Panenka penalty fits: the work of a defender with the soul of a striker. But there's a maturity now too. Ramos talks often of leading, of carrying the team forward, of taking responsibility.
He talks highly of Joaquín Caparrós, the man who gave him his debut as a 17-year-old at Sevilla and Luis Aragonés who made him an international at 18. He talks, too, of Del Bosque, and with great warmth, but there's also a strong sense of self-development. "Vicente is close to you, always communicating, but gives you space to not burden, not to pressure you like some coaches like Capello or Mourinho who have a different way of working towards the same basic goal. Ultimately, what matters is your own demands. A coach can encourage you with praise or criticism but you have to want to."
"Coaches have used me as a kind of Comodín," he continues. A Comodín is a wild card. "'We need a striker', striker. 'We need a midfielder', midfielder. Right-wing, pivot, centre-back, full-back, right, left. I've never felt uncomfortable anywhere. I could happily play [at right-back again] if needed but I'm more comfortable centrally now. You're the axis of the defence, you lead, you organise, you have hierarchy, status, you position the full-backs. My evolution has been intellectual, emotional too. You learn quickly at Madrid. Every lesson here is three elsewhere. I'm a centre-back now."
On Wednesday night, that means a battle with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. "Van Persie is on very, very good form," Ramos says. "We hadn't seen him this good for years. He's quick, strikes the ball well, he's a constant nuisance.
"Rooney's different. He's hard-work, heavy going. He enjoys the physical challenge. I prefer that, to be honest. I like that defender versus striker battle, that challenge. But Rooney's mobility is difficult: you don't always know how far to step out to pressure him. He drops deeper, or pulls wide and you wonder whether to follow. The communication with the midfield is vital. If he drops, there's a point at which the centre-back can't follow him and the responsibility passes to the midfielders. Go too far and you leave space behind.
"But it's not just them, it's the whole team. You've got Chicharito who comes on for half an hour and scores two or three every time. And it's no coincidence.
"I was pleased to get United. They are in the Premier League what Madrid are in Spain perhaps: the values, the history. What they have always represented, the philosophy they transmit, the ideals they inculcated their players with, are similar.
"Few games have the repercussion of this match. And I'd rather play them than a team that's not as big but comes along and surprises you. Besides, I like English football."
Enough to move there? "When you go through a bad spell all sorts of things go through your mind and there have been times when I've had offers from England and Italy but my Dad told me once: 'If you are ever going to leave anywhere, do it through the front door and with your head held high, not when things are going badly.' My dream is to keep playing here but it's true that England's attractive. Friends playing there always talk highly [about it] and it would be a new experience.
"My Dad used to watch a lot and he would say to me when I was a kid: 'Come and watch this. Look at this guy …' I wouldn't say he obliged me to watch it but pretty much. He'd say: 'Today so-and-so is playing; watch him.'" And who did he support? Ramos grins. "Manchester United." Divided loyalty, then? "Haha, no! My dad always had a soft spot for Manchester but my family are Sevilla fans – and now Real Madrid."
United stand in the way of a challenge on the one trophy to resist Ramos, the one that defines his club and the one upon which Madrid's season hinges, as they lie 16 points behind Barcelona in the league. It has been a difficult season, a case study in media scrutiny, hidden agendas and politics. Accusations have flown, talk of conflict and clashes, of Cristiano Ronaldo being unhappy, of José Mourinho's anger, of ultimatums. All played out in the intense glare of the spotlight.
Ramos, too, has been implicated. When he wore Mesut Ozil's shirt under his own it was interpreted by many in the Spanish media as a challenge on his manager, even if he says, perhaps a little flatly, "let's hope [Mourinho stays] but that's his decision. He's a great coach and we've been lucky to have had him. The decision's in his hands, it's up to him to decide." He adds: "This season it's more a case of things people said than a reality of [dressing room] conflicts. You can't let it get to you because if you do, you can't live. I don't watch football debate shows on TV, hardly listen to the radio, or read the papers."
The European Cup is the great promise, the hope, the agglutinate, the objective into which all else is subsumed. Ramos, as captain, has a key role to play in keeping the focus on a potentially historic trophy, known only by a number: the décima, 10th. "I wouldn't call it an obsession," he says. "It's been a long time now and everyone says: 'This year la décima, la décima, la décima …' Of course we feel that too but we're conscious of how difficult it is, one mistake and you're out. That said, the desire is intense and a final at Wembley would be the maximum."
First, though, United. And, who knows, maybe penalties. Maybe even a Panenka. Would Ramos do it again? "Yes, of course," he starts to say. Then he stops, pauses and adds, grinning: "Well, maybe not this time. This time, they'll know."